After the extremist group ISIS posted a YouTube video of American journalist James Foley's execution, Google-owned YouTube took the video down, and Twitter's CEO said in a tweet, "We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery."
Who would want to see the gruesome video or further the militants' propaganda goals? Count me out. However, it is wrong that Twitter and YouTube made that decision for us, without a clear explanation. Twitter, showing its inconsistency, declined to suspend the Twitter accounts run by the New York Post and New York Daily News, which also posted images from the beheading.
During the 2012 Summer Olympics, Guy Adams, a journalist working for The Independent, a British newspaper, tweeted numerous barbs about NBC. In one tweet, he asked his followers to register their disgust at the network's tape-delayed coverage by emailing an NBC executive. Adams gave out the executive's corporate email address, which could be found through a simple Google search.
Someone at Twitter, which had an Olympic partnership with the network, told NBC about it and encouraged the network to report the tweet as a violation of Twitter's terms of service. NBC reported the tweet, and Twitter suspended Adams' account. Under pressure from the media and the masses on its own platform, Twitter later reinstated him, saying it was a mistake while still maintaining he broke the rules by posting a "private email address."
These examples draw into question the role social media companies play in stopping speech. The world increasingly discusses issues and draws attention to the persecuted through social media, and it's clear that the young, large corporations that run these platforms are struggling with their newfound and important roles as publishers.
If Google, Facebook and Twitter decide something shouldn't be seen, then for all intents and purposes, it does not exist. With that kind of power, it's crucial that these companies be transparent and consistent in their editorial judgments and lean on the side of free speech, even when the speech is horrific.
With more than 270 million active users and a heavy focus on spreading information as events unfold, Twitter has become instrumental in giving us an unfiltered look at events around the world, from the protests over the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, to the fighting in the Middle East.
Without Twitter, the events in Ferguson likely would not have become a major story in the mainstream press, and the police officers likely would have been able to operate without the world looking over their shoulders. What if Twitter had decided that the tweets from people on the streets of Ferguson were too violent and shut those voices down? It's not that far of a leap from shutting down the ISIS accounts.
For its part, Facebook, with its 1.3 billion active users and counting, largely has not been a place for information or discussion about controversial events. Facebook controls what you see in your "newsfeed," and it does so through a complicated and secret algorithm. It's widely believed that the algorithm is based on what you have "liked" and commented on in the past. Who is going to "like" something about police brutality or beheadings?
When you consider Facebook's strict policy against hate speech, nudity, violence and other things it deems unlikeable and add its secret algorithm and muddy appeals process, Facebook does not appear to be a bastion for free and open expression.
Social media, which makes everyone a potential journalist, has changed the communications game. A study this year by the Pew Research Center showed that half of Facebook and Twitter users get their news from those platforms.
An informed society needs criticism and open discussion about controversial topics, even those that are uncomfortable or repugnant.
The great promise of social media is that information goes around the gatekeepers and leapfrogs official repression. Thanks to the way social media works, individual users can choose their sources of information. With the push of a button, we can avoid content we don't want to see. We don't need Twitter to push that button for us.
Robert Quigley is a senior lecturer in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin and was the first social media editor at the Austin American-Statesman.